We have earlier stated that anecdotes often reveal more about a man’s thinking and character than might a long recounting of his deeds. About Abraham Lincoln many stories have been told, some no doubt apocryphal, others not. I will present here a few true anecdotes that most readers are not likely to be familiar with; they shed revelatory light on Lincoln’s character, and how his leadership gifts were powerful in their own understated way.
After receiving his party’s nomination for 1860 presidential election, Lincoln returned to his home exhausted. He was reclining on a sofa in his home, opposite which was a large mirror mounted on a bureau. Lincoln later described a mystical experience that reveals his deep belief in divine action:
As I reclined, my eye fell upon the glass, and I saw distinctly two images of myself, exactly alike, except that one was a little paler than the other. I arose and lay down again with the same result. It made me quite uncomfortable for a few minutes, but, some friends coming in, the matter passed out of my mind. The next day, while walking in the street, I was suddenly reminded of the circumstance, and the disagreeable sensation produced by it returned. I had never seen anything of the kind before, and did not know what to make of it.
I determined to go home and place myself in the same position, and, if the same effect was produced, I would make up my mind that it was the natural result of some principle of refraction or optics, which I did not understand, and dismiss it. I tried the experiment, with the same result; and, as I had said to myself, accounted for it on some principle unknown to me, and it then ceased to trouble me. But the God who works through the laws of Nature might surely give a sign to me, if one of His chosen servants, even through the operation of a principle in optics.
Along these lines, Lincoln would later tell his friend Noah Brookes on the burdens of leadership:
I should be the most presumptuous blockhead upon this footstool if I for one day thought that I could discharge the duties which have come upon me, since I came to this place, without the aid and enlightenment of One who is stronger and wiser than all others.
At a different time he would say:
I am very sure that if I do not go away from here a wiser man, I shall go away a better man, from having learned here what a very poor sort of man I am.
Lincoln Impresses A New Yorker With His Oratory
Lincoln was frequently underestimated by those who had never had contact with him. A New Yorker who had never been much impressed with Lincoln (whom he considered an ungainly rube) once came to see him deliver a speech in that city. His impressions of Lincoln during the speech were these:
When Lincoln rose to speak, I was greatly disappointed. He was tall, tall, oh so tall, and so angular and awkward that I had for an instant a feeling of pity for so ungainly a man. He began in a low tone of voice, as if he were used to speaking out-of-doors, and was afraid of speaking too loud.
He said, “Mr. Cheerman,” instead of “Mr. Chairman,” and employed many other words with an old-fashioned pronunciation. I said to myself, “Old fellow, you won’t do; it is all very well for the Wild West, but this will never go down in New York.” But pretty soon he began to get into the subject; he straightened up, made regular and graceful gestures; his face lighted as with an inward fire; the whole man was transfigured. I forgot the clothing, his personal appearance, and his individual peculiarities. Presently, forgetting myself, I was on my feet with the rest, yelling like a wild Indian, cheering the wonderful man. In the close parts of his argument, you could hear the gentle sizzling of the gas burners [used for lighting].
When he reached a climax, the thunders of applause were terrific. It was a great speech. When I came out of the hall, my face was glowing with excitement and my frame all aquiver…
On another occasion in New York in 1860, Lincoln visited the neighborhood known as the Five Points, which was well-known as a rough and dangerous place. Undeterred, Lincoln entered the area and spoke at its House of Industry. A school superintendent who was present described the scene in this way:
One Sunday morning I saw a tall, remarkable-looking man enter the room and take a seat among us. He listened with fixed attention to our exercises, and his countenance expressed such genuine interest that I approached him and suggested that he might be willing to say something to the children. He accepted the invitation with evident pleasure, and coming forward began a simple address which at once fascinated every little hearer and hushed the room into silence. His language was strikingly beautiful, and his tones musical with intense feeling. The little faces would droop into sad conviction when he uttered sentences of warning, and would brighten into sunshine as he spoke cheerful words of promise. Once or twice he attempted to close his remarks, but the imperative shout of, “Go on! Oh, go on!” would compel him to resume.
As I looked upon the gaunt and sinewy frame of the stranger, and marked his powerful head and determined features, now touched into softness by the impressions of the moment, I felt an irrepressible curiosity to learn something more about him, and while he was quietly leaving the room, I begged a man to tell me his name. He replied, “It is Abraham Lincoln, from Illinois.”
An Effective Rebuke to General Hooker
In 1863 Lincoln wrote this politely powerful chastisement to Major General Joseph Hooker, a boastful Union commander who was long on talk but short on accomplishments. (Lincoln suffered much from inept generals throughout the war, only at the very end finding the kind of kind of fighters he was looking for). The background to this letter was that Hooker had had the temerity to criticize Lincoln and other superiors, even suggesting that the United States needed a military dictator to prosecute the war. This masterful letter epitomizes Lincoln’s deft leadership skills: in the same letter he could both scold and inspire his commanders. He was confident enough to allow his subordinates to make blunders, but at the same time he knew how to leave no room for doubt about who was actually in charge.
Jan. 26, 1863
I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course, I have done this upon what appears to me to be sufficient reasons, and yet I think it best for you to know that here are some things in regard to which I am not quite satisfied with you.
I believe you to be a brave and skillful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not indispensable, quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm. But I think that, during General [Ambrose] Burnside’s command of the Army, you have taken counsel of your ambitions, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong, both to the country, and a most meritorious and honorable brother officer.
I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the army and the government needed a dictator. Of course, it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you a command.
Only those generals who gain success can set up as dictators. What I ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The government will support you to the utmost of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit that you have aided to infuse into the army, of criticizing their commander, and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can to put it down. Neither you nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army while such a spirit prevails in it.
And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness. But with energy and sleepless vigilance, go forward and give us victories.
It is through stories like these that we may begin to grasp the greatness of a man.
To read more about great men and the role of character, check out my latest book below, Sallust: The Conspiracy Of Catiline And The War Of Jugurtha.